Did I ever tell you the story of my grade school years in Mexico? I was in school there for kindergarten, first, second and third grade. Then I did one year in El Paso, Texas, and then it was back to Juarez, Chihuahua, for fifth grade. By sixth grade, we got our permanent residence and moved permanently to El Paso.
Wait, what? I was in school in El Paso before I got my permanent residence? Yeah… It’s a long story. Basically, the Supreme Court had ruled that children — legally in the country or not — were entitled to an education. The school districts in Texas only required that you be a resident of the district, not whether or not you were legally in the country. So all my aunt — with whom I was living for that year — had to do was to show that she was renting a house in the district and that I lived there.
One day I’ll write about that year. I remember it well because of the stuff that went on, the weekly good-byes to my mother and the profound distance from my father.
Anyway, during the time that I was in school in Mexico, I was required to stand for about a half hour each morning (regardless of the weather) and go through a series of patriotic acts. A group of students would parade the Mexican Flag around the school plaza (an open space in front of the school). We’d then sing the Mexican National Anthem, and then we’d do the pledge of allegiance.
“¡Bandera de México!, (Flag of Mexico!)
legado de nuestros héroes (Legacy of our heroes)
símbolo de la unidad (Symbol of the unity)
de nuestros padres (Of our parents)
y de nuestros hermanos, (And of our brothers)
te prometemos ser siempre fieles (We promise you to always be faithful)
a los principios de libertad y justicia (To the principles of Liberty and Justice)
que hacen de nuestra Patria (That make our Fatherland)
la nación independiente, (The independent nation,)
humana y generosa (Humane and Generous)
a la que entregamos nuestra existencia. (To which we give our existence.)”
Yeah, it was very patriotic, very militaristic. It’s not much different than what we see here in the United States, right? I remember coming to school in the fourth grade and having to stand up and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the US Flag. I didn’t know what I was saying at first, or why I was saying it. By the end of that fourth grade, I had come to understand that it was something you did, especially me, in order to fit in and show that you loved America.
Woe be upon you if you didn’t recite it. There was one kid whose parents had told him not to do it, so he silently sat each day while we said the pledge. And almost every day, a kid whose dad was in the military would bully the crap out that kid. “My dad almost died in Vietnam for you, and this is how you repay him?”
As I grew older, I came to understand that saying the pledge — Mexican or American — didn’t make me more or less Mexican or American. At soccer games where a Mexican team was facing an American team, I was one of the very few people who proudly sang both anthems and stood at attention to both flags. I was one of the very few who removed his hat and stood silently. Even at an Orioles game a couple of years ago, I was surprised at the number of people who chatted while the color guard presented the flag and while the US National Anthem was being performed.
Now that I’m older, I understand completely that patriotism is not something you measure by how someone salutes a flag. When I asked myself what made up the substance of America, the answer was clear: The People. Take away The People and there is nothing of this country. So it is how you treat others around you that I use to measure your patriotism. You can salute the flag all you want and sing the anthem until your lungs burst, but, if you’re a sh*tty person, all that patriotism means nothing.
To make things worse, a lot of the “patriots” I encounter seem to have little to no knowledge of history. They fail to put into context the things that are coming out of their mouths. “The Civil War was not about slavery,” they say. Oh, really?
“During the Gettysburg Campaign, soldiers in the the Army of Northern Virginia systematically rounded up free blacks and escaped slaves as they marched north into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Men, women and children were all swept up and brought along with the army as it moved north, and carried back into Virginia during the army’s retreat after the battle. While specific numbers cannot be known, Smith argues that the total may have been over a thousand African Americans. Once back in Confederate-held territory, they were returned to their former owners, sold at auction or imprisoned.” (Source.)
“This nation is a Christian nation,” they’ll holler. Then they forget that there is an explicit separation of Church and State in the US Constitution, and that… Well, this:
“Jefferson authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and asked that it be one of just three accomplishments listed on his tombstone. The Virginia law became the foundation of the religious freedom protections later delineated in the Constitution.
Virginia went from having a strong state-established church, which Virginians had to pay taxes to support, to protecting freedom of conscience and separating church and state. Jefferson specifically mentioned Muslims when describing the broad scope of protections he intended by his legislation, which was passed in 1786.
“What he wanted to do was get the state of Virginia out of the business of deciding which was the best religion, and who had to pay taxes to support it,” said Spellberg, a professor of history and Islamic studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
During the bill’s debate, some legislators wanted to insert the term “Jesus Christ,” which was rejected. Writing in 1821, Jefferson reflected that ‘singular proposition proved that [the bill’s] protection of opinion was meant to be universal.'” (Source.)
Yep. That’s the same Thomas Jefferson who said that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. it is it’s natural manure.” You know, the quote that these “patriots” use all the time to justify their possession of guns and intimidation of authority figures.
Patriotism is not about waving this flag or that flag and misquoting historical figures. It’s about taking the time to read and understand history in context and how we got to where we are. Then you do something to make the history written about you be one written in a positive light by being kind to others and helping everyone move forward. Patriotism is about love of country, yes, and then realizing that the country are the people, not the symbols or the institutions. Loving those symbols and those institutions more than the people is nationalism.
So love the people more than the country, and you’ll love the country more than yourself.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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